GaAs RF: stronger than ever

As global economies reel from the impact of Covid-19, one sector weathering the doldrums better than most, is the GaAs RF market. Thanks to steady manufacturing, strong demand and a robust supply chain in the face of US-China trade tensions, Yole Développement (Yole) predicts the RF GaAs die market will increase in value in 2020 compared to 2019. With a CAGR of 4.4, the market is expected to reach at least $3.6 billion come 2025,  according to the Compound Semiconductor Quarterly Market Monitor, Q4 2020 from Yole.

While the pandemic has had a swift and severe effect on many manufacturing industries from copper and steel to aerospace and automotive, semiconductor fabrication has proceeded with only the odd splutter. For example, operations at the Mexican facility of US integrated device manufacturer, Skyworks, came to a brief suspension following Mexican government orders for a general lockdown in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. At the same time, manufacturing at rival US IDM, Qorvo, proceeded thanks to domestic semiconductor operations being deemed essential by US government but with a disrupted supply chain and headwinds at the logistics levels. Both companies had a rough period – still, with lots of efforts they were able to adapt and respond effectively to a new safe working environment with revenues increase compared to last year. Taiwanese foundry players such as WinSemi, VPEC and AWSC have continued regardless. And all in all, the only real delays up and down the global supply chain have come from transportation issues between countries.

Handset highs

Beyond solid semiconductor manufacturing, one of the biggest boons for GaAs RF also comes from a rise in demand for 5G, WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E technologies since the onset of the pandemic. Despite a slump in overall handset sales, consumer demand for next generation handsets has lurched upwards while many OEMs have also increased inventory in preparation for a second wave of the virus.

This rising demand for 5G, sub-6 GHz devices and systems is proving crucial to the GaAs RF industry, with GaAs technology expected to form the basis of power amplifiers at these higher frequencies. 5G and WiFi-6-related devices are to provide blisteringly fast gigabit speeds with low latencies and will need the high linearity and power that GaAs can bring.

At the same time, the shift from 4G to 5G is bringing yet more band frequencies, increasing the total power amplifier area and number of power amplifiers in the RF front-end. Given this, the volumes of GaAs chips and wafers shipped will increase.

But while 5G will undoubtedly raise the demand for GaAs, the same cannot be said for nascent mmW technologies. Although consumers are already embracing 5G, sub-6 GHz handsets, the high frequency, faster 5G mmW technology is now emerging, and RF industry players are looking out for CMOS alternatives. GaAs is one option – with its higher performance and established supply chain. However, rival technologies SiGe and GaN are also vying for market share here, and right now, we can only watch as this market segment evolves.

Power amplifiers aside, chip makers have the option between GaAs, CMOS, SiGe and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) based solutions for the low noise amplifier (LNA) and switch in consumer applications.

Meanwhile, in next generation handsets, GaAs will continue to make in-roads into the power amplifiers and drivers used in wireless backhaul networks in telecom infrastructure markets. The technology will remain in competition with SiGe and SOI when it comes to LNAs and switches.

However, for defense and satcom markets, GaAs will continue to lose market share to rising compound semiconductor star, GaN. Thanks to its high-power density, power-added efficiency and thermal conductivity, only this technology can provide the high performance and small footprint that equipment makers want.

Yet amid the ups and down of the telecoms, defense and satcom markets, a new sector offers huge potential for GaAs. Vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, is a wireless communication system that enables vehicles, roadside infrastructure and road users to connect and communicate with each other.

Set to reach most new vehicles by 2022, V2X based on 4G LTE has already been implemented by many manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Renault, Toyota and Ford, while the 5G version is currently under development. Crucially, as V2X rolls out, GaAs is set to be a frontrunner for supporting PAs in front-end modules while SiGe, SOI and silicon will more likely be used in LNAs and switching.

Trade tension twists

Unlike many other compound semiconductor-related technologies, GaAs RF has a well-established supply chain with many global players spanning activities from wafer manufacturing all the way to device design and system supply. Key wafer players include Germany’s Freiberger, US-based AXT and Sumitomo Electric of Japan, while epiwafer manufacturers include IQE of the UK, and VPEC, Taiwan. Taiwan’s Win Semi and AWSC recently expanded GaAs capacity to meet demand.

US-based IDMs, Skyworks and Qorvo, continue to hold the biggest market share – each has its own foundry and design capabilities. However, expect strong competition from Japan’s Murata, Broadcom, US and numerous other chip and device manufacturers.

But while the GaAs RF industry supply chain is undoubtedly solid, change is afoot following US-China trade tensions. From word go, US IDMs, including Skyworks and Qorvo, have been losing revenue from Huawei, as the Chinese telecom leader is forced to source components from companies closer to home, as well as in Europe. Key players operating here include China’s HiSilicon/SananIC and Vanchip, as well as Taiwan’s RichWave. What’s more, many of these companies are developing the all-important 5G power amplifier.

However, what is also clear is that prior to US sanctions, Huawei and other Chinese OEMs, had been building up inventories. Factor in the remarkable capacity that Chinese companies have to expand, and we can expect to see the revenues of Skyworks and Qorvo, as well as other US businesses along the supply chain, being eroded even further.

Given its complex supply chain, the GaAs RF landscape will no doubt experience many more twists and turns in the coming years. However, thanks to the numerous well-established GaAs players scattered across the globe and the seemingly relentless consumer demand for the next new handset, the industry can continue to expect robust growth and a bright future.

The Compound Semiconductor & Emerging Substrates team

Ezgi Dogmus, PhD. is Team Lead Analyst in Compound Semiconductor & Emerging Substrates activity within the Power & Wireless Division at Yole Développement (Yole).

She is managing the expansion of the technical expertise and the market know-how of the company.

In addition, Ezgi actively assists and supports the development of dedicated collection of market & technology reports, monitor as well as custom consulting projects.

Prior to Yole, Ezgi worked as a process development engineer for GaN-based RF and power solutions at IEMN (Lille, France).

Ezgi has authored or co-authored more than twelve papers.

After graduating from University of Augsburg (Germany) and Grenoble Institute of Technology (France), Ezgi received her PhD. in Microelectronics at IEMN (France).

Ahmed Ben Slimane, PhD. is a Technology & Market Analyst, specialized in Compound Semiconductors and Emerging Substrates at Yole Développement (Yole).

As part of the Power & Wireless team, Ahmed is contributing to the development of dedicated collection of compound semiconductors market & technology reports and monitor. Previously, he worked as an epitaxy (MBE/MOCVD) & fabrication process engineer for GaAs-based photovoltaic applications at TOTAL and IPVF (Paris-Saclay, France). Ahmed also completed his PhD in Material Engineering from KAUST (Saudi Arabia), where his mission was focused on GaN-based microstructures for flexible solid state lighting.

During his career, Ahmed Ben Slimane proposed lot of presentations towards an international audience. He authored/co-authored more than 20 publications in the semiconductor field and submitted a patent on the III-V hetero-structure for PV industry. 

Ahmed obtained his Master Degree in Electronics Engineering from INPG (Grenoble, FR).

Poshun Chiu is a Technology & Market Analyst specializing in Compound Semiconductor and Emerging Substrates at Yole Développement (Yole). As a member of the Power Electronics & Wireless division at Yole, Poshun focuses on power, RF, and opto-electronics. He is engaged in the development of technology and market reports and is also involved in custom projects.

Before joining Yole, Poshun had 9 years’ experience in R&D and product management at Epistar (TW & CHN). He is the author or co-author of more than 10 patents in solid-state-lighting. Poshun was also engaged in the development and evaluation of novel applications of process technology and components based on relevant semiconductor material systems

Poshun received an MSc degree in Microelectronics from National Cheng Kung University (TW) and an MBA from IESEG School of Business(FR).

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